Wednesday, October 30, 2013

what's underneath your words

Today I am thinking of the words compassion and brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya is one of the yamas (which is one of the eight limbs of yoga, we've been through all this already, right?), the restraints, ways that we're encouraged to behave as practicing yoga students. They include things like honesty, nonviolence, not stealing and a few others. Brahmacharya is often (mis)translated as celibacy. Listen, I should say, if it's not obvious to you because you don't know me well: I'm no kind of Sanskrit or yoga scholar. At least, not today. So I can't say I've studied ancient texts in Sanskrit and that celibacy is not the word. I can just say that a lot of what I've read makes brahmacharya something other, or more, than celibacy.

Another way it's translated is as moderation. In fact, I was on the bus a few months ago and saw a woman carrying a Lululemon bag that with the word on the side. I'm pretty sure I laughed out loud, but I had the good sense not to speak to her about it. It looked like this.

please note the cookies, candies, liquor bottles, french fries, playing cards and pills that spell out the word. Thank god for Lulu, to show us what moderate really means.
Really? I thought to myself. A company that sells $100-yoga pants has the nerve to advertise using the concept of moderation? Who y'all think you're trying to kid?

The blog post on their website featuring the bag includes a strange post from a woman who says without brahmacharya she'd sit around all day eating fried chicken, playing with puppies and posting selfies on Instagram. Instead, she found this yama, and now she's whipped herself into a tight, fit, "healthy" and (anything but) moderate shape, through various yoga and cleansing programs. I found it pretty disturbing and a little sad.

But that's not the point. The point is the word. I recently learned that the etymology of brahmacharya is, "to walk with God." I was driving down Ashland Avenue when I heard this, and it took my breath away. I almost had to pull over. The idea of moderation coming from a word that means to walk with God: it was astonishing.

When I was little, someone told me the story of Enoch, remember him? "Enoch walked with God." I think I learned it in school, and they made us say it over and over again, "Enoch walked with God." Evidently one day, God was so taken with him that God just beamed him right on up, and no one ever saw him again. When I heard this, I thought of this story. Now that I think about it, I don't know what the teachers were trying to say: maybe if we walked closely enough with God, we'd get beamed up, and spared the reckoning that is dying, or the always complicated and often painful experience of being human.

So something else this speaker mentioned was brahmacharya as using your vital life force appropriately in order to connect more efficiently with the divine. The vital life force is probably something that could be used when you're having sex, so maybe you think about not being indiscriminate, so that you can connect to your higher self when you want and need to, rather than being zapped from all the lovemaking. But maybe you use your life force at work, in front of a room full of thirsty young minds, or typing away at a keyboard and herding corporate digital cats, or dealing with an endless line of customers who demand that you move heaven and earth to meet their expectations. Is there enough of it leftover so that you can get still and quiet and connect with the divine, when the time is right?

Maybe walking with God, connecting up or connecting out, makes us better able to abstain when we want to, and not be bound by our desires. I'm not a person who believes if it feels good it must be bad, I'm just not. But there are things that I don't want to do that I do. I binge-watch television on Netflix. As hard as it makes it for me to get up the next morning, I take the iPad to bed and watch the 11th episode of some show I've already seen three times late at night. Every now and then, I buy a horrible, sugar-filled, gluten-free vegan cupcakes, and I eat the entire thing, despite knowing how shitty I'll feel afterward. I consistently over-schedule, and wind up late for something.  I get so angry with people who cut me off, and with people who expect me to move out of their way. Really, I'm not above shoulder-checking strangers as I walk down the street. I'm not confessing to these things because they're particularly bad. They're not particularly bad. But these are places where I begin to feel out of balance, where I want more of the divine. Maybe I walk with God so I will experience less attachment, or aversion, to experiences like these.

I don't know yet. I'm still thinking about it.

The other word on my mind, compassion, is a buzzword, right, it's being thrown around so much that I wonder if it even has meaning. The etymology for compassion is with suffering, or suffering with. No surprise. What I was thinking is something I heard here about being compassionate: if you don't have compassion for yourself you can't be compassionate with anyone else. I hear this a lot in terms of love: love of others starts with self-love, and I don't have any issue with it.

I was thinking about suffering. Suffering is something that no one wants to do, and that we try with all our might to avoid or to avoid feeling. Being sick, being sad, being lonely: we do whatever we can to bounce out of those feelings mightily. But what if we didn't? What if we just let ourselves hurt? I don't mean the rest of our lives, that we marinated in our pain and used it as an excuse not to grow. I mean what if, instead of distracting and over-medicating and indulging and drinking, if we just felt the pain? If we acknowledged our own pain, loneliness, ache? Maybe this would allow us to be more compassionate. Rather than feeling pity for someone who's hurting, maybe we can say, I know that hurt, I'm sorry that you feel it, because it really, really sucks.

But what I've been thinking about is that we can't be with someone else who's suffering if we're doing everything in our power to avoid our own suffering. If we can't acknowledge our pain, and ever having experienced it, does our sympathy have any chance of being meaningful, of producing true connection? I don't know.

At any rate, there's a lot on my mind.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

take it easy.

I hurt myself on my yoga mat yesterday morning. I don't really know how it happens. I wasn't checked out, thinking about what I was going to eat for breakfast or what I'd dreamed about last night or Peyton Manning's game last night or what time the sun was going to come up. I was thinking about what I was doing: I was in plank pose, and trying to lower down into chaturanga dandasana with my knees lifted (which is something I don't do very much because I'm building upper body strength consciously) and something in my thoracic spine snagged and I flopped down onto my belly with the grace of a trout.

The good news is that it was near the end of my practice. I didn't have a ton of poses or vinyasas left to do, so I knew a rest was coming soon. After the last few poses I lay down on my mat and thought to myself, Damn, I hurt myself. Then the voices started in. I heard my father's voice first, telling me I should be more careful. "Be more careful" was something my parents said to me a lot. Worry defined our relationship for years. When I moved out of the house, I would call home and my father would answer the phone, and the first thing he said, without fail was, "Is everything okay?" It was fine, but it also imbued every call with an urgency that was never there: it displayed his tendency to walk around in an almost constant state of anxiety. It's as if he wasn't glad to hear from me, he was worried because if I was calling then I had a problem.

Anyway, his voice telling me to be More CAREFUL was the first thing I heard, lying there on my mat. The truth is, I wasn't being careless. I was focused, I was playing my edge, and I was tuned in to my body. I wasn't flinging myself around in poses and trying to wrap my ankles around my head. I was practicing my practice. Then I heard my husband's voice, which was saying, oh are you okay, oh, I'm so sorry.

After those voices, I started thinking that it was okay that I'd hurt myself. I hadn't done it on purpose, and I hadn't been careless, and it had happened and it was okay. Be compassionate, I thought. This injury gives you a chance to approach your physical practice with integrity, and to treat yourself lovingly, gently, sweetly. We need a lot of compassion when we're hurting. Maybe it's because so often we're irritated by our own pain, as if somehow we shouldn't hurt, we should be bigger than this, or we don't have time for this, or this pain is so small and it should get the hell outta our way.

In the few poses I had left and in savasana, I began to think about injury. I don't like injury, I don't know if anyone likes hurting, but still I'm grateful for injury. When your body hurts, the pain forces you to slow down. You must tune into your physiology really clearly to know where your limits are, and continue to move in a way that's good for you but also that's healing. Pain is an opportunity to take care of yourself and do things that are healing.

How often do we do that in life? So rarely, I think. When we have a headache, we don't walk away from the computer and turn the TV off and get quiet and still and hydrate. Instead, we take a couple of aspirin and continue life at the same breakneck speed. There are so many products we use to try and avoid feeling our pain, so many things we do to treat our symptoms but not to deal with what's causing them.

Yesterday, after my practice, I spent the day taking it easy. I took an Epsom salts bath, I lay around with a heating pad, I rubbed various things into my muscles (or rather, my husband did: thanks, Honey!) and I even took a muscle relaxant. None of these really cured the pain. I just wound up more or less achy, grumpy and sleepy for most of the afternoon, and I slept maybe 14 hours. This morning, when I woke, the pain was worse than before.

This morning, I'm planning on taking another slow day, trying to take care of myself and trying to get a little work done. But I'm also thinking about emotional pain and its similarity to physical pain. I want to say something pithy about how when we feel emotional pain--which generally happens as a result of knowing and relating to other people--we don't slow down and stay present and see if there's something we can do in the midst of the feeling to make it better, to heal. We lash out or we retreat. We don't move toward the pain, and gently and respectfully deal with it, to see what it has to teach it, and how we can heal. We pop all kinds of psychic painkillers and do everything we can to forget about it.

You know, people talk about prayer and God being bigger than we are and affecting our hearts so that we can love one another better. But I think that maybe the way that happens is painful. So few of us want to do the hard thing, to do what hurts in pursuit of healing. Does it matter how much we pray if at the end of the day, what will heal us is the thing we refuse to feel? I don't know. Generally, we pray for a miracle, for a change in the other person, we don't pray for the bravery and humility and self-compassion to do our own hard internal work.

Anyway, my back hurts, but not because I did anything wrong. Because sometimes, we hurt. I'm using the pain as an opportunity to practice self-compassion. There's plenty to go around.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Open Letter to My Cousin, Shortly After His Wedding Day

Dear Cousin,

Congratulations! You and your new bride are about to begin a new phase of life together, and as a member of your family, I couldn't be more excited for you. Weddings tend to bring out the need in people to give unsolicited advice; also, you never had a big sister, and I can't claim to have been someone who was close to you growing up, or told you what to do like a sister; still, in keeping with those traditions, I'm going to lay on you some lessons I've learned in my short time being married.

Marriage is the greatest, most fun, and exciting choice you can ever make. If you've chosen a life partner who makes you laugh, whom you can talk to, who helps you to be a better version of yourself, you are in for an exciting and life-changing ride. You might have thought you were having fun when you fell in love with one another, and after you got engaged, if you two are anything like us, you had the most fun being engaged. But trust me when I say that being married is better. Way better.

Having said that, marriage is not a fantasy, nor is it like what you imagined it.When you consider the life-long relationship that you and your wife are building together, remember this: your marriage is your own. It's not your parents' marriage, it's not your cousins' marriage, it's not a perfect marriage, and it's not (thank god) a Kardashian marriage. It's yours. You and your wife decide what it means to love each other, to support and take care of each other, to be faithful to and honest with one another. You get to build it any way you want. Let go of "what it means to be a husband," because the only thing that's relevant is what it means to be Elizabeth's husband; don't consider what it means to have "a wife", consider only what it means to be loved and cared for by your wife. You will encounter a lot of social programming about what you think marriage should be--some of it from friends or parents or relatives, some of it even from inside you. Listen to it, but ultimately, trust your intuition to guide you to the best relationship.

Marriage is not a state, it's a choice. You two slipped rings on fingers and now you're enjoying the sand and the sun. It's lovely, but soon you will return to real life. Real life is hard. To be married means to wake up and choose every day that you will do life with your partner. When you become complacent, when you begin to treat your marriage as static and unchanging, it stops growing and it stops serving the two of you. Every day, make the same commitment to yourself and your wife that you made in front of your families and your community, that you will do life together.

Don't be afraid of conflict. You're going to hurt each other. This is part of what it means to be in relationship, so don't be surprised when it happens. When it does, communicate clearly, respectfully and openly. When you're angry, it's hard to do this, but listen closely to each other. Really listen. Let go of the notion of being right, or being wrong, because it just doesn't matter. What matters is your connection to each other, how you treat each other, and how each of you works to sustain a relationship good for both of you. If you have behaved badly, apologize quickly and sincerely, and if you need to, forgive quickly and sincerely. It's okay to fight, because conflict is growth trying to happen, and if a thing stops growing it stops living. Use moments of conflict as an opportunity for each of you to be a better human being, and for both of you to move closer to each other.

Laugh together. A lot in this world makes you serious, or angry, and so it is SO important that you and your bride have fun. Don't take yourself, or each other, too seriously. Take serious what is serious, and laugh at what is funny. Be nice whenever you can, and don't ever take each other for granted. Say please. Say thank you.

A wise woman I know says that marriage isn't even about love, but it's about serving as a developmental object for each other. That's psycho-babble, but what it really means is that romance is nice, affection is nice, but your work, as people married to each other, is to heal the baggage you bring into marriage and to help one another grow into the best possible versions of yourself. Often this kind of growth won't be comfortable, but it will make you a better husband and a better human being. The love and support you get from a good partner who wants to help you grow is indescribable. It's what allows you to do things you never thought possible, and what helps you to recover from sadness you never knew you'd experience.

I love you, cousin. I'm so happy that this experience is a part of your life. I am so grateful to have been a part of your community. It means something to me that I am someone who bore witness to the commitment you made, and I want to support you in any way I can in your new chapter of life.  I'm not much older than you, but I'm happy to share what I've learned.

I am always willing to be any help I can to you and yours. Please don't hesitate to ask.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

New Project with Ms Fit

I'm so excited about this new project I'm writing over at Ms Fit. I tend to blog here a fair amount about yoga, without shame, but since I'm a part of a great health, wellness and fitness community, I'm blogging there about a new project I'm undertaking. For one month, I'm going to devote myself to an Ashtanga yoga practice. What's Ashtanga? Click here and find out.

So while I'm obviously still active here, I want to invite you to check out my project there.

Monday, October 7, 2013


I've been thinking a lot about love lately. Not the way I love James Bond movies (I can't help myself) or the way you love chocolate or the way you love how your butt looks in that pair of jeans. The real love that passes between people. Capital -L Love.

The first time I told my husband I loved him, he told me I didn't know what I was talking about. Yeah. It lives in our marriage as one of those things, those moments one person (maybe be) keeps bringing up after the fact, like a fight about someone's mother-in-law or some other tired marriage cliche. We were making out at my place, had been dating for several months, and it felt like the right time, so I said it. He said something like,"Jess, we can't know what it means to love each other, not yet. I know you mean well, but you don't understand what you're saying."

Ooh, I was SO pissed. How dare this man--granted he was the most tender, thoughtful, open and honest human being I'd known to date, but still--how dare he tell me I didn't know what I was talking about? What kind of arrogance did it take to know what he thought was going on in my heart? Here I was trying to be vulnerable and connect with him through my major feelings, and he was tossing them back and telling me I was a kid playing with a grown-up concept I didn't understand. I felt so condescended to, so belittled. It was the first time he'd ever provoked that kind of feeling from me.

Although now, after six years together and three years of marriage, I wonder if maybe he was right.

I've been wondering what love is: if the love that a woman feels for her partner is less like a relational love and more like loving chocolate or some celebrity. Love is a feeling, but it's also a force, an energetic experience that moves us to do things: speak, think differently (maybe!), move toward or away from someone, it can even drive us to deceit, manipulation, murder. Is it a one-way stream of energy, like wind or a city street? Am I not so much in love with someone as I am in love at them? Is there a difference?

I was thinking of my parents as I was wondering about love and what it is between people. I imagine that my mother, and probably my father too, would still say that they love me, even after so much time has passed without us engaging in relationship. Even after all their pain--which, I imagine, is the only pain they are even semi-conscious of. In our most recent dealings with one another, my pain was irrelevant, and also according to them self-inflicted--and all their sacrifice and all of their tolerance of me, they still love me. I tried to imagine the scenario in which either of my parents would say to me that they loved me. Sadly, in my imagination, it felt so untrue. To love someone, you have to know them: who they are; what them believe in and want for themselves and their people, for the world; what they like or dislike; how they spend their time. Knowing all these things that you might about them, you could like them or not, but you have to know them.

If you love someone, what do you do? How do you love them? People do all kinds of jacked-up, despicable things in the name of love. A man may beat his wife because "he loves her" and wants her to behave in a way that keeps him calm. A mother may deride her son because "she loves him" and wants to prepare him early for the fact that the world is a cruel place. Parents may force a child to attend church for years, with no awareness of their child's faith journey because they "love" their child, and fear for her eternal soul. These people think that what they're doing is expressing love. Would their children and partners agree?

I think that most love, most love I know, has been one-way love. I reflect on some of the behavior I've been party to and I realize that this does not feel like love to me. You cannot love me unless you know me: adore, cherish, esteem, sure, and thank you because those are lovely. But love is an active verb, and it is not one-way. Two people in relationship agree on what it means to love each other. Sometimes love means I will let you beat me because I know that the moment I say "Jell-o", you will stop. Sometimes love means you will let me pick your clothes out for you; or you will cut my hair. You love me and I love you because we've named what passes between us as love. To love someone takes their consent. And I don't mean sexual consent here, I mean relational. It need not involve any touching at all. You can love me, and I can love you, if and only if each of us can say, "Yes, I witness what you feel for me, and I can affirm that it is love."

Consent. In love. Is that real? Is that revolutionary? Or I am I just late to this party?

In a Christian circle I used to run in, I heard the phrase "do life" a lot: as in, this is a person or community I want to do life with. Maybe that is what love is; if you love someone, you choose to do life with someone, whether it's for the rest of y'alls lives or until you decide you no longer want to do life. I read recently that the Sanskrit word for love, bhakti, stems from the verbal root bhaj, which means, "to participate". I read this and it took my breath away. Love means participation, it means buying in. You don't need to "fix" anything or "change" anything, but you are invested, you are participating actively in that person's life in a way that serves them and serves you. 

Now, I suppose the other side of this is: what if the person who says they love you really believes that they love you, but you don't? What then? Yes, indeed what then. I suppose that if you two can't agree on what love is in the context of your relationship, then the relationship must be reconfigured. You treat me a certain way and you say, "Jess, I love you." I say, "I'm sorry, what I feel coming from you is something but I do not feel loved. To love me looks like this; what comes from you looks like that." This is not a fun conversation to have. It requires supernatural listening, and an enormous amount of compassion for the self and for the person you're in relationship with. 

Now, maybe you can't get down with this idea of love as a shared, consensual practice. Maybe you love someone because you know what it means even if they don't. Okay. I might respectfully say that you might be loving at them, which makes them into an object, not a person in relationship with you. If that's okay with them and with you, loving them the way you love french fries and chocolate shakes, then you do you. But this is not the love I want from people in relationship with me. I want us to know each other, and I want our love to be affirming for all of us. 

A love that requires so much of me, and so much of the people I am in relationship with, might mean that I love only a very few people. But I hope not. I hope love is a kind of self-charging battery, and the better we love one another--in relationship and not as objects--the more able we are to continue to love others, and the love will spread.

(I am only just now wondering if this is how Christ loves the church, an enduring model for how we should love each other, which (at least theoretically) requires a great deal of sacrifice. I don't know. I imagine Christ knows the church, with its totally messed up damage, with its struggle to stay relevant in a world that is both wrapping itself in the love of God more ardently (read (some)human rights and (some) social change) , and also so terrified of change that it is blowing itself up and shutting itself down. The more I think about Christ as a model for life, the more I wonder how realistic it is for me to be comparing myself to THE SON OF GOD, for fuck's sake. What chance do I have in arriving if that's my yardstick? But this is all just parenthetical and wondering, and not so important after the fact. Just a post-script musing.)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

some real talk on meditation

"Meditation is not a way to make things easier; it's a way to make them worse, so you will have to grow in the process.
 "The worst pitfall, I would say, is using meditation to "spiritually bypass" other concerns, concerns that can only be handled in their own terms, or on their own level. People think that meditation will take care of their money problems, their sex problems, their food problems--and of course it won't. What it will do is make you more sensitive and aware; and if you've got a painful life problem, meditation will probably just make it more painful because it will make you more sensitive. Meditation means you can't hide the pain anymore. You have to step right into the middle of it.
"In particular, meditation will not take care of most psychological problems. If you're basically a neurotic, meditation will make you a nice, enlightened neurotic. If you're a real schmuck, meditation will make you a real sensitive schmuck. It doesn't eliminate fundamental psychological or neurotic difficulties. and in some cases it can make them worse.
"I wouldn't say that [meditation is of no use with all psychological problems.] It can be of benefit in many ways, particularly in strengthening witnessing-awareness, but preferably alongside a psychotherapy designed to deal specifically and directly with your particular neurosis.  My point is that many people think that meditation is some sort of panacea, and it isn't. It is a direct way to engage your own growth and evolution, and, as is always the case, growth is painful. It hurts. If you're doing meditation correctly, you are in for some very rough and frightening times. Meditation as a "relaxation response" is a joke. Genuine meditation involves a whole series of deaths and rebirths; extraordinary conflicts and stresses come into play. All of this is just barely balanced by an equal growth in equanimity, compassion, understanding, awareness and sensitivity, which makes the whole endeavor worthwhile.
"But it's not just a day at the beach. Look at the life stories of the great saints and sages, and you will see tremendous struggle and pain. And notice that most of it starts after they have progressed in meditation, not before. My point is that there are extraordinary benefits and extraordinary pains, so hang in there. Just don't meditate instead of taking out the garbage--physical, emotional or psychological."  
---- "The Power and Limits of Meditation" by Ken Wilber